All projects—especially large, complex projects—need clear priorities. Easier said than done. You can count on technical projects, no matter how well-planned, to involve change orders, re-prioritization and the regular appearance of surprises. It’s just the natural order of things.
But still. Knowing how to prioritize work affects the success of your project, the engagement of your team, and your role as a leader.
One of the biggest challenges for project managers and leaders is accurately prioritizing the work that matters on a daily basis. Even if you have the best project management software on the planet, you’re the one who enters information into the tool. And, you don’t want to fall into the role of crying “top priority” for every other project that comes down the pike. Just as you have to be diligent and have the right kind of project insight to ensure that nobody’s working on yesterday’s priorities. It takes a lot of practice to get this right.
To help you manage your team’s workload and hit deadlines, here are 6 steps to prioritizing projects that have a lot of moving parts.
1. Collect a list of all your tasks. Pull together everything you could possibly consider getting done in a day. Don’t worry about the order, or the number of items up front.
2. Identify urgent vs. important. The next step is to see if you have any tasks that need immediate attention. We’re talking about work that, if not completed by the end of the day or in the next several hours, will have serious negative consequences (missed client deadline; missed publication or release deadlines, etc.). Check to see if there are any high-pri dependencies that rely on you finishing up a piece of work now.
3. Assess value. Next, look at your important work and identify what carries the highest value to your business and organization. As a general practice, you want to recognize exactly which types of tasks have top priority over the others. For example, focus on: client projects before internal work; setting up the new CEO’s computer before re-configuring the database; answering support tickets before writing training materials, and so on. Another way to assess value is to look at how many people are impacted by your work. In general, the more people involved or impacted, the higher the stakes.
4. Order tasks by estimated effort. If you have tasks that seem to tie for priority standing, check their estimates, and start on whichever one you think will take the most effort to complete. Productivity experts suggest the tactic of starting the lengthier task first. But, if you feel like you can’t focus on your meatier projects before you finish up the shorter task, then go with your gut and do that. It can be motivating to check a small task off the list before diving into deeper waters.
5. Be flexible and adaptable. Uncertainty and change is a given. Know that your priorities will change, and often when you least expect them to. But—and here’s the trick—you also want to stay focused on the tasks you’re committed to completing.
7. Know when to cut. You probably can’t get to everything on your list. After you prioritize your tasks and look at your estimates, cut the remaining tasks from your list, and focus on the priorities that you know you must and can complete for the day. Then take a deep breath, dive in and be ready for anything.